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BACKGROUND to the New Testament #1

Palestine in the 1st Century A.D.


                      Sketches of Jewish Social life


                       Alfred Edersheim, D.D., Ph.D.

It is with great delight that I am able to bring you this old
book by the scholastic Jewish Christian Alfred Edersheim. The
forth coming chapters will give you the background to the New
Testament. By understanding the historical setting of the first
century A.D. you will appreciate the Gospels and apostolic
writings to a more edifying manner. I have divided Edersheim's
chapters into various headings and paragraphs for easier reading
- Keith Hunt



     EIGHTEEN and a half centuries ago, and the land which now
lies desolate - its bare, grey hills looking into ill-tilled or
neglected valleys, its timber cut down, its olive - and vine-clad
terraces crumbled into dust, its villages stricken with poverty
and squalor, its thoroughfares insecure and deserted, its native
population well-nigh gone, and with them its industry, wealth,
and strength - presented a scene of beauty, richness, and busy
life almost unsurpassed in the then known world. The Rabbis never
weary of its praises, whether their theme be the physical or the
moral pre-eminence of Palestine. It happened, so writes one of
the oldest Hebrew commentaries,'that Rabbi Jonathan was sitting
under a fig-tree, surrounded by his students. Of a sudden he
noticed how the ripe fruit overhead, bursting for richness,
dropped its luscious juice on the ground, while at a little
distance the distended udder of a she-goat


1. See Hamburger, "Real-Enc. d. Judenth." i. p. 816, note 37.


was no longer able to hold the milk. "Behold," exclaimed the
Rabbi, as the two streams mingled, "the literal fulfilment of the
promise: 'a land flowing with milk and honey.'" "The land of
Israel is not lacking in any product whatever," argued Rabbi
Meir, "as it is written (Deut.viii.9): 'Thou shalt not lack
anything in it.'" 1 
     Nor were such statements unwarranted; for Palestine combined
every variety of climate, from the snows of Hermon and the cool
of Lebanon to the genial warmth of the Lake of Galilee and the
tropical heat of the Jordan valley. Accordingly not only the
fruit trees, the grain, and garden produce known in our colder
latitudes were found in the land, along with those of sunnier
climes, but also the rare spices and perfumes of the hottest
zones. Similarly, it is said, every kind of fish teemed in its
waters, while birds of most gorgeous plumage filled the air with
their song.2
     Within such small compass the country must have been
unequalled for charm and variety. On the eastern side of Jordan
stretched wide plains, upland valleys, park-like forests, and
almost boundless corn and pasture lands; on the western side were
terraced hills, covered with olives and vines, delicious glens,
in which sweet springs murmured, and fairylike beauty and busy
life, as around the Lake of Galilee. In the distance stretched
the wide sea, dotted with spreading sails; here was luxurious
richness, as in the ancient possessions of Issachar, Manasseh,
and Ephraim; and there, beyond these plains and valleys, the
highland scenery of Judah, shelving down through the pasture
tracts of the Negev, or


1 In discussing the lawfulness of a peppercorn on the Day of
Atonement. Yoma, 91 b, towards the end.
2 Detailed references are here, of course, impossible; but
compare, for example, the accounts of so careful and able a
naturalist as Canon Tristram.


South country, into the great and terrible wilderness. And over
all, so long as God's blessing lasted, were peace and plenty.    
Far as the eye could reach, browsed "the cattle on a thousand
hills;" the pastures were "clothed with flocks, the valleys also
covered over with corn;" and the land, "greatly enriched with the
river of God," seemed to "shout for joy," and "also to sing."    
Such a possession, heaven-given at the first and heaven-guarded
throughout, might well kindle the deepest enthusiasm.
     "We find," writes one of the most learned Rabbinical
commentators, supporting each assertion by a reference to

"that thirteen things are in the sole ownership of the Holy One,
blessed be His Name! and these are they: the silver, the gold,
the priesthood, Israel, the first-born, the altar, the
first-fruits, the anointing oil, the tabernacle of meeting, the
kingship of the house of David, the sacrifices, the land of
Israel, and the eldership." 

     In truth, fair as the land was, its conjunction with higher
spiritual blessings gave it its real and highest value.     
"Only in Palestine does the Shechinah manifest itself," taught
the Rabbis. Outside its sacred boundaries no such revelation was
     It was there that rapt prophets had seen their visions, and
psalmists caught strains of heavenly hymns.  Palestine was the
land that had Jerusalem for its capital, and on its highest hill
that temple of snowy marble and glittering gold for a sanctuary,
around which clustered such precious memories, hallowed thoughts,
and glorious, wide-reaching hopes. There is no religion so


1 R. Bechai.   The Scripture references are: Hagg. ii.8; Ex.
xxix.1; Numb. iii.13; Lev. xxv.55; Ex. xx.24; Ex. xxv.2; Ex. xxx.
31; Ex. xxv.8; Numb. xxviii.2; 1 Sam. xvi.1; Lev. xxv.23.   Comp.
Relandi, Palaest. (ed.1716), p.14
2 See, for example, the discussion in "Mechilta" on Ex. xii.1


strictly local as that of Israel.  Heathenism was indeed the
worship of national deities, and Judaism that of Jehovah, the God
of heaven and earth. But the national deities of the heathen
might be transported, and their rites adapted to foreign
manners.  On the other hand, while Christianity was from the
first universal in its character and design, the religious
institutions and the worship of the Pentateuch, and even the
prospects opened by the prophets were, so far as they concerned
Israel, strictly of Palestine and for Palestine. They are wholly
incompatible with the permanent loss of the land. 
     An extra-Palestinian Judaism, without priesthood, altar,
temple, sacrifices, tithes, first-fruits, Sabbatical and Jubilee
years, must first set aside the Pentateuch, unless, as in
Christianity, all these be regarded as blossoms designed to ripen
into fruit, as types pointing to, and fulfilled in higher
     Outside the land even the people are no longer Israel: in
view of the Gentiles they are Jews; in their own view, "the
dispersed abroad."
     All this the Rabbis could not fail to perceive.             
     Accordingly when, immediately after the destruction of
Jerusalem by Titus, they set themselves to reconstruct their
broken com-


1 This is not the place to explain what substitution Rabbinism
proposed for sacrifices, etc. I am well aware that modern Judaism
tries to prove by such passages as 1 Sam. xv.22; Ps. li.16,17;
Isa. 1.11-13; HOS. vi.6, that, in the view of the prophets,
sacrifices, and with them all the ritual institutions of the
Pentateuch, were of no permanent importance. To the unprejudiced
reader it seems difficult to understand how even party-spirit
could draw such sweeping conclusions from such premisses, or how
it could ever be imagined that the prophets had intended by their
teaching, not to explain or apply, but to set aside the law so
solemnly given on Sinai. However, the device is not new. A
solitary voice ventured even in the second century on the
suggestion that the sacrificial worship had been intended only by
way of accommodation, to preserve Israel from lapsing into
heathen rites!


monwealth, it was on a new basis indeed, but still within
Palestine. Palestine was the Mount Sinai of Rabbinism. Here rose
the spring of the Halachah, or traditional law, whence it flowed
in ever-widening streams; here, for the first centuries, the
learning, the influence, and the rule of Judaism centred; and
there they would fain have perpetuated it. The first attempts at
rivalry by the Babylonian schools of Jewish learning were keenly
resented and sharply put down.1
     Only the force of circumstances drove the Rabbis afterwards
voluntarily to seek safety and freedom in the ancient seats of
their captivity, where, politically unmolested, they could give
the final development to their system.  It was this desire to
preserve the nation and its learning in Palestine which inspired
such sentiments as we are about to quote. "The very air of
Palestine makes one wise," said the Rabbis.  The Scriptural
account of the borderland of Paradise, watered by the river
Havilah, of which it is said that "the gold of that land is
good," was applied to their earthly Eden, and paraphrased to
mean, "there is no learning like that of Palestine."   It was a
saying, that "to live in Palestine was equal to the observance of
all the commandments."   "He that hath his permanent abode in
Palestine," so taught the Talmud, "is sure of the life to come."
"Three things," we read in another authority, "are Israel's
through suffering: Palestine, traditional lore, and the world to
come." Nor did this feeling abate with the desolation of their
country.  In the third and fourth centuries of our era they still
taught, "He that dwelleth in Palestine is without sin."

     Centuries of wandering and of changes have not torn the
passionate love of this land from the heart of the people.


1 See my History of the Jewish Nation, pp.247,248.


Even superstition becomes here pathetic. If the Talmud 1 had
already expressed the principle, "Whoever is buried in the land
of Israel, is as if he were buried under the altar," one of the
most ancient Hebrew commentaries 2 goes much farther. From the
injunction of Jacob and Joseph, and the desire of the fathers to
be buried within the sacred soil, it is argued that those who lay
there were to be the first "to walk before the Lord in the land
of the living" (Ps. cxvi.9), the first to rise from the dead and
to enjoy the days of the Messiah. Not to deprive of their reward
the pious, who had not the privilege of residing in Palestine, it
was added, that God would make subterranean roads and passages
into the Holy Land, and that, when their dust reached it, the
Spirit of the Lord would raise them to new life, as it is written
(Ezek. xxxvii.12-14):

"O My people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up
out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel . . . .
and shall put My Spirit in you, and ye shall live; and I shall
place you in your own land." 

     Almost every prayer and hymn breathes the same love of
Palestine. Indeed, it were impossible, by any extracts, to convey
the pathos of some of those elegies in which the Synagogue still
bewails the loss of Zion, or expresses the pent-up longing for
its restoration.3 
     Desolate, they cling to its ruins, and believe, hope, and
pray - oh, how ardently! in almost every prayer - for the time
that shall come, when the land, like Sarah of old, will, at the
bidding of the Lord, have youth, beauty, and fruitfulness


Cheth. iii, a. - the reference here being most curiously to Ex.
xx.24: "An altar of earth shalt thou make to Me." Indeed, that
whole page of the Talmud is very characteristic and interesting.
2 Ber. Rabba.
3 See especially the sublimest of these elegies, that by Judah


restored, and in Messiah the King "a horn of salvation shall be
raised up" 1 to the house of David.
     Yet it is most true, as noticed by a recent writer, that no
place could have been more completely swept of relics than is
Palestine. Where the most solemn transactions have taken place;
where, if we only knew it, every footstep might be consecrated,
and rocks, and caves, and mountain-tops be devoted to the holiest
remembrances - we are almost in absolute ignorance of exact
localities. In Jerusalem itself even the features of the soil,
the valleys, depressions, and hills have changed, or at least lie
buried deep under the accumulated ruins of centuries. It almost
seems as if the Lord meant to do with the land what Hezekiah had
done with that relic of Moses - the brazen serpent - when he
stamped it to pieces, lest its sacred memories should convert it
into an occasion for idolatry. 
     The lie of land and water, of mountain and valley, are the
same; Hebron, Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, Nazareth, the Lake
of Gennesaret, the land of Galilee, are still there, but all
changed in form and appearance, and with no definite spot to
which one could with absolute certainty attach the most sacred
events.   Events, then, not places; spiritual realities, not
their outward surroundings, have been given to mankind by the
land of Palestine.

"So long as Israel inhabited Palestine," says the Babylonian
Talmud, "the country was wide; but now it has become narrow."    

     There is only too much historical truth underlying this
somewhat curiously - worded statement.  Each successive change
left the boundaries of the Holy Land narrowed.


1 These are words of prayer taken from one of the most ancient
fragments of the Jewish liturgy, and repeated, probably for two
thousand years, every day by every Jew.


     Never as yet has it actually reached the extent indicated in
the original promise to Abraham (Gen. xv.18), and afterwards
confirmed to the children of Israel (Ex. xxiii.31). The nearest
approach to it was during the reign of King David, when the power
of Judah extended as far as the river Euphrates (2 Sam. viii.
     At present the country to which the name Palestine attaches
is smaller than at any previous period. As of old, it still
stretches north and south "from Dan to Beersheba;" in the east
and west from Salcah (the modern Sulkhad) to "the great sea," the
Mediterranean. Its superficial area is about 12,000 square miles,
its length from 140 to 180, its breadth in the south about 75,
and in the north from 100 to 120 miles. 
     To put it more pictorially, the modern Palestine is about
twice as large as Wales; it is smaller than Holland, and about
equal in size to Belgium. Moreover, from the highest
mountain-peaks a glimpse of almost the whole country may be
obtained. So small was the land which the Lord chose as the scene
of the most marvellous events that ever happened on earth, and
whence He appointed light and life to flow forth into all the

     When our blessed Saviour trod the soil of Palestine, the
country had already undergone many changes. The ancient division
of tribes had given way; the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel
existed no longer; and the varied foreign domination, and the
brief period of absolute national independence, had alike ceased.
     Yet, with the characteristic tenacity of the East for the
past, the names of the ancient tribes still attached to some of
the districts formerly occupied by them (comp. Matt. iv.13,15). 
     A comparatively small number of the exiles had returned to
Palestine with Ezra and Nehemiah, and the Jewish inhabitants of
the country consisted either of those who had originally been
left in the land, or of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. 


     The controversy about the ten tribes, which engages so much
attention in our days, raged even at the time of our Lord.1 

"Will He go unto the dispersed among the Gentiles?" asked the
Jews, when unable to fathom the meaning of Christ's prediction of
His departure, using that mysterious vagueness of language in
which we generally clothe things which we pretend to, but really
do not, know.  "The ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now,
and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by
numbers," writes Josephus, with his usual grandiloquent
selfcomplacency. But where - he informs us as little as any of
his other contemporaries. We read in the earliest Jewish
authority, the Mishnah (Sanh. x.3): "The ten tribes shall never
return again, as it is written (Deut. xxix.28), 'And He cast them
into another land, as this day.' As 'this day' goeth and does not
return again, so they also go and do not return. This is the view
of Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Elieser says, 'As the day becomes dark and
has light again, so the ten tribes, to whom darkness has come;
but light shall also be restored to them.'"


I This is not the place to discuss the question.  There can be no
reasonable doubt, that colonies from some of these tribes are
scattered far and wide.  Thus descendants of them are traced in
the Crimea, where the dates on their gravestones are reckoned
from "the era of the exile, in 696 B.C.; i.e., the exile of the
ten tribes; not 586 B.C., when Jerusalem was taken by
Nebuchadnezzar" (Dr. S. Davidson, in Kitto's "Cycl. of Bill.
Lit." iii. p.1173). For notices of the wanderings of the ten
tribes see my [list. of the Jewish Nation, pp.61-63; also the
late Dr.Wolff's researches in his journeys.  How prone even
learned Talmudical Jews are to credulity in the matter of the ten
tribes may be gathered from the Appendix to Rabbi Schwartz's (of
Jerusalem) Holy Land (pp.407-422 of the German. ed. ). The oldest
Hebrew Crimean inscriptions date from the years 6, 30, and 89 of
our era (Chwolson, Mem. de PAc. de St. Peters& ix. 1866, No. 7).



Keith Hunt


     At the time of Christ's birth Palestine was governed by
Herod the Great; that is, it was nominally an independent
kingdom, but under the suzerainty of Rome. On the death of Herod
- that is, very close upon the opening of the gospel story - a
fresh, though only temporary, division of his dominions took
place. The events connected with it fully illustrate the parable
of our Lord, recorded in Luke xix.12-15,27. If they do not form
its historical groundwork, they were at least so fresh in the
memory of Christ's hearers, that their minds must have
involuntarily reverted to them. Herod died, as he had lived,
cruel and treacherous. A few days before his end, he had once
more altered his will, and nominated Archelaus his successor in
the kingdom; Herod Antipas (the Herod of the gospels), tetrarch
of Galilee and Peraea; and Philip, tetrarch of Gaulonitis,
Trachonitis, Batanaea, and Panias - districts to which, in the
sequel, we may have further to refer. As soon after the death of
Herod as circumstances would permit, and when he had quelled a
rising in Jerusalem, Archelaus hastened to Rome to obtain the
emperor's confirmation of his father's will. He was immediately
followed by his brother Herod Antipas, who in a previous
testament of Herod had been left what Archelaus now claimed.     
Nor were the two alone in Rome. They found there already a number
of members of Herod's family, each clamorous for something, but
all agreed that they would rather have none of their own kindred
as king, and that the country should be put under Roman sway; if
otherwise, they anyhow preferred Herod Antipas to Archelaus.     
Each of the brothers had, of course, his own party, intriguing,
manoeuvring, and trying to influence the emperor. Augustus
inclined from the first to Archelaus. The formal decision,
however, was for a time postponed by a fresh insurrection in
Judaea, which was quelled only with difficulty. Meanwhile, a
Jewish deputation appeared in Rome, entreating that none of the
Herodians might ever be appointed king, on the ground of their
infamous deeds, which they related, and that they (the Jews)
might be allowed to live according to their own laws, under the
suzerainty of Rome.
     Augustus ultimately decided to carry out the will of Herod
the Great, but gave Archelaus the title of ethnarch instead of
king, promising him the higher grade if he proved deserving of it
(Matt. ii.22). On his return to Judaea, Archelaus (according to
the story in the parable) took bloody vengeance on "his citizens
that hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not
have this man to reign over us."   
     The reign of Archelaus did not last long. Fresh and stronger
complaints came from Judaea.  Archelaus was deposed, and Judaea
joined to the Roman province of Syria, but with a procurator of
its own. The revenues of Archelaus, so long as he reigned,
amounted to very considerably over 240,000 pounds a year; those
of his brothers respectively to a third and sixth of that sum.   
But this was as nothing compared to the income of Herod the
Great, which stood at the enormous sum of about 680,000 pounds;
and that afterwards of Agrippa ii., which is computed as high as
half a million. In thinking of these figures, it is necessary to
bear in mind the general cheapness of living in Palestine at the
time, which may be gathered from the smallness of the coins in
circulation, and from the lowness of the labour market. The
smallest coin, a (Jewish) perutah, amounted to only the sixteenth
of a penny. Again, readers of the New Testament will remember
that a labourer was wont to receive for a day's work in field or
vineyard a denarius (Matt. xx.2), or about 8 penny, while the
Good Samaritan paid for the charge of the sick person whom he
left in the inn only two denars, or about 1 shilling 4 penny.
(Luke x.35). But we are anticipating.   

     Our main object was to explain the division of Palestine in
the time of our Lord.

     Politically speaking, it consisted of Judaea and Samaria,
under Roman procurators; Galilee and Perara (on the other side
Jordan), subject to Herod Antipas, the murderer of John the
Baptist" that fox "full of cunning and cruelty, to whom the Lord,
when sent by Pilate, would give no answer; and Batanaea,
Trachonitis, and Auranitis, under the rule of the tetrarch
Philip. It would require too many details to describe accurately
those latter provinces. Suffice, that they lay quite to the
north-east, and that one of their principal cities was Caesarea
Philippi (called after the Roman emperor, and after Philip
himself), where Peter made that noble confession, which
constituted the rock on which the Church was to be built (Matt.
xvi.16; Mark viii.29). It was the wife of this Philip, the best
of all Herod's sons, whom her brother-in-law, Herod Antipas,
induced to leave her husband, and for whose sake he beheaded John
(Matt. xiv.3, etc.; Mark vi. 17; Luke iii.19). It is well to know
that this adulterous and incestuous union brought Herod immediate
trouble and misery, and that it ultimately cost him his kingdom,
and sent him into life-long banishment.

     Such was the political division of Palestine. Commonly it
was arranged into Galilee, Samaria, Judaea, and Peraea. 


     It is scarcely necessary to say that the Jews did not regard
Samaria as belonging to the Holy Land, but as a strip of foreign
country - as the Talmud designates it (Chag. 25 a.), "a Cuthite
strip," or "tongue," intervening between Galilee and Judaea.     
From the gospels we know that the Samaritans were not only ranked
with Gentiles and strangers (Matt. x.5 ; John iv.9,20), but that
the very term Samaritan was one of reproach (John viii.48).

 "There be two manner of nations," says the son of Sirach
(Ecclus. l. 25,26), "which my heart abhorreth, and the third is
no nation; they that sit upon the mountain of Samaria, and they
that dwell among the Philistines, and that foolish people that
dwell in Sichem."   

     And Josephus has a story to account for the exclusion of the
Samaritans from the Temple, to the effect that in the night of
the Passover, when it was the custom to open the Temple gates at
midnight, a Samaritan had come and strewn bones in the porches
and throughout the Temple to defile the Holy House. Most unlikely
as this appears, at least in its details, it shows the feeling of
the people. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the
Samaritans fully retaliated by bitter hatred and contempt. For,
at every period of sore national trial, the Jews had no more
determined or relentless enemies than those who claimed to be the
only true representatives of Israel's worship and hopes.


To be continued


The Jewish Encyclopedia has a long and details article on the
Samaritans. The truth of the matter is that the Samaritans were
NOT Gentiles at all. They were a Jewish sect. They were a people
from the Ten Tribes, who were left behind when the house of
Israel was deported to the Assyrian Empire from 745 to 718 B.C.
With that knowledge the account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman
makes much more sense by what she claimed for her people (John
4:7-26). Her forefathers did indeed worship in her land, and
Jacob of old did give the well from which she was coming to draw
water. The Samaritans were an Israelite sect, who had their own
Temple and priesthood, hence the bitter hate between the Jews and
the Samaritans.

Keith Hunt

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